In this summer of "Deadpool," "The Avengers" and "Ant-Man," last week the AP touted Fred Rogers — a man in a cardigan sweater who hosted a children’s TV program entirely devoid of special effects — as “the unexpected superhero of the summer.”
Having known him personally and produced “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the documentary about his ideas, I’m confident he would have bristled mightily at this characterization.
Fred Rogers was, after all, an anti-superhero. After reading reports of children critically injured while jumping from windows while pretending to be Superman after the Christopher Reeve movie came out, he actually spent a week in 1980 reminding children that superheroes didn’t exist in real life, only in stories.
That said, I do understand the impulse to lionize Fred Rogers: There was something otherworldly about the man.
While there were some people who found his intense, unflinching gentleness off-putting, most others found in it a source of deep comfort. Even as adults, particularly in times of crisis or tragedy, many still turn to Fred: His words “Look for the helpers” ricochet around the internet like an incantation after tragedies, from the hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico to the shootings in Florida and Las Vegas, in publications ranging from the New York Times to Reddit to Fox News.
And, after watching the footage of Fred moving grizzled members of Congress in 1969 with his heartfelt words about funding educational children’s programming, we may be tempted to believe that, if only Fred were around today, he might be able to just swoop in and fix the media landscape, reconnect us to our values, heal the fractures in our country and bring love and care to those children who so desperately need it.
But Fred wasn’t a superhero, and his goal wasn’t to show us that he was powerful or that he could singlehandedly save us from whatever problems confronted us, be it a difficult family life, troubles in school or a world that sometimes felt too big and scary to bear — all of those feelings that sometimes overwhelmed our fragile childhood hearts.
Instead, he strove mightily to help us to identify the resources that each of us has within us and to mobilize those inherent capabilities so we could each bring about our own salvation. He called us to see one another in our fullest humanity — to reach beyond the categories and divisions that estrange us from each other. And he urged us to be proud of our uniqueness, to believe in our own inherent worthiness and to understand that others are inherently worthy too.
He was sometimes criticized for this, even accused of creating an entitled generation of children who thought they were all special, despite speaking to three generations of Americans. But I think his detractors misunderstood his core message which was, as he put it the year before his death in his commencement address at Dartmouth: “Be true to the best within you.” Not just true to yourself, but to the best within you.
He continued, “I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things, without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate. Peace that rises triumphant over war. And justice that proves more powerful than greed.”
Fred summed up what he believed would be the mission of this new millennium in four simple words: “Make goodness attractive again.”
Right now, it might feel like we need a superhero — or maybe an army of superheroes — to achieve that mission. But Fred Rogers didn’t think so. The point of his life’s work was to show us that we each have goodness within us and to inspire us to recognize and embrace the goodness in others. Watching audiences react to our film, I’m hopeful that he just may have been right.
Nicholas Ma is the producer of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the documentary about Fred Rogers that is currently playing in theaters.